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Leonard Phillips (Len) Fox (1905–2004)

by Tony Stephens

from Sydney Morning Herald

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

Len Fox, 1923

Len Fox, 1923

from Scotch College Archives

Len [Leonard Phillips] Fox, and his widow and soul mate, playwright Mona Brand, regarded the past and future with a mixture of fondness and philosophical detachment that can come with age. "If you live to 90 or 91, some of your dreams come true," he said at his 91st birthday party.

Some of Leonard Phillips Fox's dreams came true during his 98 years; some didn't. He was a schoolteacher, painter, journalist, poet, polemicist, novelist, historian and internationalist who joined the Communist Party in 1935 to fight fascism and the Depression.

Communism failed but fascism was beaten in Germany. In any case, Fox believed that this struggle, and others against racism and nuclear weapons, and for such causes as Aboriginal rights, workers' rights and the environment, had brought significant successes and, at least, been broadening experiences.

"When one looks back at the many important achievements of the Left, one can only say that it was a tragedy that the crazy doctrinaire narrowness of some of the leading communists led to such damage," he said on the publication of one of his 38 books and pamphlets, Australians on the Left.

He wrote his book about "people with human weaknesses and people who at times made silly mistakes (as I did myself) but people who had dreams of a better world and the dedication to fight for it, people with warm feelings for their fellow human beings."

The book was published on the eve of his 91st birthday. Other booklets were to follow, including Glimpses of a Century, when he was 95. Even more recently he published Sketches over 70 Years, a collection of his drawings.

At Len Fox's funeral service last Friday, historian Bob Walshe pointed to one of Fox's dreams or campaigns that had come "dazzlingly true", his 60-year battle to have the flag of the Eureka Stockade "authenticated and recognised as the symbol that most dramatically captures the spirit of Australian struggle for an independent democratic republic".

Fox's inquiries about a flag locked away in the Ballarat Art Gallery began in the 1930s. In 1963, when the Australian Encyclopedia announced it unlikely that this flag was the authentic Eureka flag, he self-published The Strange Story of the Eureka Flag, which concluded that this was the authentic flag. He provided more evidence in Eureka and Its Flag (1973) and The Eureka Flag (1992).

In 1996, a sketchbook of watercolours by Charles Doudiet, painted on the goldfields in the 1850s, went up for sale in Melbourne. It included sketches of the flag, exactly as described by Fox.

"Len was delighted, as well he might be," Walshe said. "No historian can have enjoyed a more complete vindication." And, in the very week of Fox's death, the Royal Australian Mint issued a dollar coin commemorating the 150th anniversary of the stockade and showing a scene from the Doudiet painting with the flag.

Fox was born into a conservative, middle-class Melbourne family, the second of three children of Irene Stubbs and David Henry Fox, who was the brother of E. Phillips Fox, the painter. Fox adored his uncle and one of his favourite paintings, his uncle's Motherhood, hangs in the Art Gallery of NSW.

He won a scholarship to Scotch College, a science degree from Melbourne University and a diploma of education. He was a member of Melbourne University Rifles, Robert Menzies' regiment. He taught at Scotch and was active in the Congregational Church before travelling to Hungary in 1933 for a Scouts jamboree and to England to study education.

In England he witnessed the hunger marches to London during the Depression and read Marx, Engels and Lenin. Walking and sketching along the Elbe and Rhine rivers in 1934, he grew alarmed at the signs of Nazism rising under Hitler's Germany.

Back in Australia he joined the Movement Against War and Fascism, the organisation that brought Czech writer Egon Kisch to Australia. Menzies, then attorney-general, sought to ban Kisch, a former communist, from attending a congress in Melbourne. Kisch broke a leg jumping from a ship and failed a dictation test in Gaelic, a common tactic to deny foreigners entry. However, he won in the High Court and left under his own steam in 1935.

The Movement Against War also helped raise money for Australians going to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

Fox came to Sydney and worked for Progress, a small weekly publication of the NSW Labor Party, which campaigned to have Menzies replaced during World War II by John Curtin. He later worked with Tribune, the Communist Party paper.

Fox said afterwards that communists basked in the reflected glory of the Red Army during the war and believed that the meetings of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin pointed the way to a bright new people's world. "We acted as though we, and only we, could plan the future," he wrote, "as though world socialism was just around the corner. We ignored the rumbings of the Cold War ... we ignored reality."

After his marriage to Glen Mills failed he met Mona Brand at a meeting of the Realist Writers Group. Other members included Edgar Ross, Frank Hardy, Vera Deacon and Dorothy Hewett.

The couple married in 1955 and, Brand discovered recently on examining her ASIO file, were shadowed on their honeymoon in Brisbane. ASIO also checked the registry office to make sure they were in fact married.

Journalist Wilfred Burchett recruited the couple to help the Vietnamese with English translations in 1956 and 1957. They took afternoon tea with Ho Chi Minh, who told a story about an Australian in London who complained all the time about the cold. When he died and his coffin was consigned to the crematorium, a voice came from the flames: "Shut that bloody door!"

Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin in 1956 hit Australian communists like a thunderbolt. So did Russia's invasion of Hungary in 1956, but Fox stayed in the party to "fight Stalinism from within". He remained even after Russia's crushing of the "Prague Spring" in 1968, before finally leaving in 1970.

He had worked on the Miners' Federation newspaper, Common Cause, after returning from Hanoi in 1958, becoming editor in 1965. He retired in 1970 to concentrate on his books, everything from Old Sydney Windmills to Glimpses of a Century.

Fox had campaigned for Aboriginal rights and one book was written with Faith Bandler. During the Reconciliation Convention in 1997, the governor-general, Sir William Deane, paid tribute to the "distinguished" group present who had fought for the "Yes" vote in the 1967 referendum, including Bandler, "Uncle Joe" McGinness, Jack and Jean Horner, Shirley Andrews, John Baker, Kim Beazley snr, Don Dunstan, Charles Perkins, Colin Tatz, Mona Brand and Len Fox. They all received a standing ovation.

Fox recalled meeting the indigenous activist Pearl Gibbs: "I sat opposite her thinking that her skin was no darker than mine, that she could easily have passed herself off as a white and had an easy life ... But I realised that Pearl was talking to me. 'You know,' she was saying, 'it's all your fault.'

"I looked at her in surprise, and asked her what was my fault. 'The Aboriginal problem,' she replied. 'It's not an Aboriginal problem. It's a white problem."'

White people had to realise that they were the problem.

Bandler said at Fox's funeral service: "If our confidence flagged when in pursuit of a better way of life, he was there. He helped renew our faith in people."

Jack Mundey, the former trade union leader and environmentalist, said that Fox was a pioneer environmentalist and that his advice to build a broad approach against war and poverty, and for peace, justice and ecological sanity, should be adopted today.

Vera Deacon said: "He leaves not only his books, poems, paintings and sketches but his example of a life truly lived in service and humanity."

Historian Stuart Macintyre wrote in The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia from Origins to Illegality that Fox was exemplary of those Australians drawn to communism in the 1930s, emerging from an indigenous radical tradition of "warm, human people" and contrasting with the cold, dogmatic men at the top.

Fox admitted: "We failed to give socialism a human face." He added, however, that the party helped bring Australia "out of its insular cultural cringe to the Tories".

He is survived by Mona and many nieces and nephews.

Original Publication

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Citation details

Tony Stephens, 'Fox, Leonard Phillips (Len) (1905–2004)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 June 2024.

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